Cause of the Strike and a Remedy

This article from the July 23, 1877 edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune outlines the various causes of the strike—placing blame on railroad workers and railroad executives—and stresses that the remedy to this situation can only be achieved once mob rule has been replace by law and order.

Cause of the Strike and a Remedy

The railroad strike in the East has reached the dimensions of a civil war, with its accompanying horrors of murder, conflagration, rapine and pillage. Before this condition becomes general, and the flames kindled at Baltimore and Pittsburgh spread through all the railroad centers in the country, it will be well to consider this matter reflectively, and see if there is not a remedy. There are two sides to every question. The railroad strikers are to blame for much, but not for all. For their acts of unnecessary and brutal violence, for their murder of militiamen and legal officials who were only fulfilling their sworn duty in trying to preserve public property and freight, for their burning of warehouses, cars and depots, for their pillage of store, The Tribune has no words except of severe condemnation. It has no sympathy with mob violence or mob rule.

Now let us look at the other side and see if there is not something to be condemned. During the past two years railroad companies have found their business shrinking up. Prices have fallen off. Freights have been reduced. Stocks have had their values squeezed out of them. They have been unable to pay dividends to their stockholders, rents for their hired roads, or interest on their bonds. The result has been that they have suffered from the effects of the general depression even more than other branches and scores of them have gone into bankruptcy. At this crisis of their affairs, when prudence, judgment, and conservatism were needed in the management, they have enormously aggravated their troubles by entering upon a frantic, reckless, cut-throat competition with each other, by which they have cut down the rates of moving the products and merchandise of the country to the bare cost in many cases of running the trains. The amount received for one train load of freight has scarcely paid for the wages and coal, and left nothing for repairs, wear and tear, capital and other charges. It has been a war of competition to the knife and the knife to the hilt. Combinations and compacts have been made only to be broken, almost the next instant. The Western crosscut bankrupt roads have maintained a Panic faith. They have broken every engagement. They have involved other lines in the conflict, and even the great trunk lines have not maintained their scales of rates, but, actuated by the same insanity as the rest, have engaged in the mad and disastrous work of trying to steal each other's profitless business. The great water highways from the head of Lakes Superior and Michigan to the mouths of the St. Lawrence and of the Hudson have also engaged in the same reckless work, and freight has been carried below cost to increase or retain business. The railroads have not only competed with each other destructively, but have also sought to cut off the business and steal the freight of the water-courses. This miserable process of throat-cutting has been going on for two years, and has been intensified during the past six months, until the transportation business has been plunged into utter confusion, and a crisis has come. Having destroyed their profits, to save themselves from still greater losses — if not to save their actual property — these companies have fallen upon their employees and razed their already two-or-three-times-reduced wages down to the starvation line. Trackmen, switchmen, and laborers who load and unload trains are cut down to $1, and in some cases to 90 cents per day; brakemen and firemen to $1.35; and engineers to $1.50. These men, in the majority of cases, are married, and have wives and children to support, and house rent to pay; and they claim, with truth, that it is a physical impossibility to live upon such wages. They ask, with pertinent force, if they receive $9 per week, and have to pay $6 per week for their own meals while on the road, how are they to pay rent and feed and clothe their families on what is left. As they cannot do it, they refuse to starve, and resist. One blow has brought on another, and the fire has rapidly spread through the combustible material.

The strikers are not only in a war with their employers, but with another class back of them,—the men whom the roads have heretofore discharged for want of work, who are living upon odds and ends and charity, and are in a desperate condition. With these wholly starved men, who are willing to take the places of the strikers, even at starvation prices, the half-starved men are at deadly war.

It adds to the exasperation of the strikers that they have discovered that the new scale of wages is lower than the general average of wages of mechanics in cognate departments of business where no danger exists. This has added fuel to the flames. As all the elements of exasperation have increased, so have the ranks of the strikers have been swelled by accessions of idle and discontented men from other branches of business, by tramps who have come in from the country, by the Communists, and by thieves and the riff-raff of the cities, who see in these uprisings of what is called "labor against capital" their golden opportunities for plunder and escape the confusion.

This is the situation. What is the remedy? The first and most important duty is to quell mob rule, to stop violence, pillage and incendiarism at all hazards, and to restore law and order, and place the safety of the general community in the hands of the duly constituted authorities, instead of exposing it to the blind, passionate, unreasoning fury of the mob, which has neither discretion nor discrimination. This done, an equally imperative duty devolves upon the railroad companies. They must cease cutting each other's throats as they have been doing for the past twelve months, and make their agreements binding. The community does not ask of them to work for a remuneration less than the cost or value of their service. It does not ask them to carry freight or passengers for less than living rates or at rates that compel them to reduce the wages of their employees down to the starving point. The first step for them to take is to raise their charges, not exorbitantly, but fairly and reasonably, and then restoring the last two cuts of wages, let them alone, and await the great crops to handle and the changes in the fiscal affairs of the country that will tend to restore business prosperity and place values on an improving basis. The reduction of the men's poor wages does not benefit them so long as this insane competition is kept up. Every reduction of wages if followed by a reduction of rates, and if wages were lowered to a cent per day, rates would be put down to zero, with a premium offered to shippers. The quickest solution of the present problem, a partial remedy at least, so far as we can see, is for the railroads to make a schedule of rates on the "live and let live" basis. They must charge enough to pay their men — and such compensation as to enable them to pay rent and fuel and feed and clothe themselves and their families. Before this can be done, however, mob rule and violence must be suppressed whatever may be the cost or the consequences.

About this Document

  • Source: Chicago Daily Tribune
  • Citation: page 4
  • Date: July 23, 1877